Warning: Contains discussion of sexual abuse, including that of children, in a variety of contexts.
Marion Zimmer Bradley enabled her husband to sexually abuse children, and molested her daughter. Though the business with her husband was apparently common knowledge in some circles, it has only been brought into the open in the last few weeks, and the allegations from her daughter are recent. Natalie Lurhs at Radish Reviews provides links to discussions, including depositions.
As Natalie — along with others — is saying, fandom needs to take a long look at its history and start addressing these issues. But it’s not just us: the fashion industry is still dealing/failing to deal with Terry Richardson; the Australian military has a long history of bastardisation, sexual assault and ongoing abuse in a variety of contexts; the Catholic and Anglican churches, the Orthodox Jewish community of Melbourne, the Salvation Army — secular or religious, celibate or promiscuous, straight or gay, all the identities that don’t fit neat binaries, there’s potential for abuse. Humans arrange themselves into hierarchies, and then we defend our new status quo, and in doing so, create a space where crimes can be concealed.
In my day job, I’m a court transcriber. All too often, I deal with child sexual assault. The other week, I had to listen and type as a defence barrister argued that the sexual penetration of a child under 12 was not rape, because the child might have been “promiscuous”. (I tend to type this stuff with some nice animal pictures on my second screen, or while doing some mindless internet shopping.) Sickening stuff.
I can’t do anything about the legal system except produce accurate transcript and hope that it comes to the attention of someone who’s in a position to do more. And try to vote for candidates who are interested in reform. What I can do, as a fan and a con runner (people who are chairing Continuum 11: me), is try to make fandom and convention spaces safer. This isn’t always easy, especially as I’m a relatively young con runner who isn’t part of the whisper network. I have pretty good instincts about people, and access to fans with longer memories, but I worry that isn’t sufficient.
Continuum has a code of conduct which includes a harassment policy. It’s revised annually, along with internal procedures for dealing with complaints, and the committee is made aware of it. This year, we had copies of the code of conduct posted in the foyer and published in the con book. We also make it clear that children’s programming is not childcare, and children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. (And, in the kids room, adults must be accompanied by children.) We welcome having children in our community, and we want them to be safe.
I think it’s good that the convention community is doing some soul searching and working to improve the safety of children. But cons aren’t the whole of fandom, and the con-going community is by far outnumbered by fandom online.
Is the internet safe for kids? AHAHAHAHA NO. And I’m not here to tell people with real, actual children how to supervise them online. I just have a cat, and I can assure you that he’s not allowed on the internet without an adult human present.
But here’s the thing: fans create fan work, and some of these artefacts are problematic in terms of their sexualised portrayal of children.
Now, drawing [insert underaged characters here] porn is not the same as recording the abuse of an actual flesh and blood child. But in Australia, and some other jurisdictions, the law doesn’t draw a distinction. This has been the source of much amusement on the internet, not to mention inconvenience to, say, academics doing studies of manga. But there’s a reason: it is not uncommon for abusers to groom their victims by exposing them to illustrations depicting characters from children’s media in sexual situations. Back in the day, these were pretty crude sketches. These days, abusers just hit Tumblr.
In 2007, LiveJournal suspended a whole mass of accounts based on keywords in profiles and interests. This was a heavy-handed and largely pointless exercise — among the deleted were survivor communities and Nabokov reading groups — and it turned out that LJ had been moved to act by a sketchy and homophobic group that claimed to be targeting paedophiles. LJ failed to communicate with its userbase, and this was basically the beginning of the end of its use as a fandom base of operations.
Aside from LJ’s singularly poor handling of the matter, Strikethrough — so called because suspended accounts had strikes through their names — triggered debate in fandom about the place of fanworks that portrayed underage sex. A lot of it has been lost to time and friends lock, but among the voices were survivors who found catharsis in fictionalising their experiences. But there were also red flags, like people saying, “Well, my writing attracts real paedophiles, and I’m nothing like that!” and arguing that it’s a myth that children cannot consent to sex.
The general consensus, in the end, was that the portrayal of underage sexuality was a legitimate fannish expression, and anyone who felt otherwise was a kink-shaming, sex negative prude. And this has been on my mind in the past few weeks, because I read the Breendoggle documents, and that attitude, couched in the language of the 1960s, is exactly how Walter Breen got away with child abuse.
And no, most people writing or drawing underage sex in fandom aren’t paedophiles. But if their work is being posted in public, it’s out there to facilitate child abuse. And it’s easy to find, whether you want to or not. (There’s a reason I don’t search Avatar character tags on Tumblr.) It’s a myth that you can wander around the internet and just stumble across photographic child porn by accident, but fan art? It’s everywhere.
(Spoilers: “But I’m just appreciating the aesthetics of the child porn!” is basically a police interview cliché. It has its own bingo square. Or would, if my colleagues and I were tasteless enough to make a child abuse bingo game. Which we’re not. Obviously.)
It’s part of the nature of the internet that we can’t control what happens to something after it’s posted — especially with groups that are determined to be as antisocial as possible, and yes, I’m thinking of last week’s Legend of Korra “livestream” that had rape porn in the ad breaks. But I think it’s worth coming back to this issue again and reconsidering it in light of recent revelations and current knowledge about the way child abusers operate. We need to consider our current status quo and the opportunities it creates for abuse. Otherwise, in another twenty years, we’re just going to have more of these terrible revelations.